The Soil Health Summit connects farmers, researchers, policymakers

Cornell hosted the second Soil Health Summit in New York on Dec. 13, bringing together farmers, policymakers and researchers who aim to help producers mitigate and adapt to climate change while protecting the food supply and improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural economies.

The summit was organized to help this diverse group of stakeholders take action on the New York City Soil Health and Climate Resilience Act passed by the Legislature last year. State lawmakers and agency officials in attendance included Kevin King, deputy secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Kathy Hochul; Assemblymembers Donna Lupardo, D-123rd District, and Chris Teague, R-102nd District; and State Sen. Michelle Hinchey ’09, D-46th Dist.

“Farmers are not only on the front lines of the climate crisis, they’re a big part of the solution,” said Hinchey, an ILR graduate who co-introduced the Soil Health Act with Lupardo, calling it the first major update to conservation laws of soil in New York after the Dust Bowl era. “Soil health protects our farmland and our food supply, while sequestering carbon and fighting climate change.”

Lupardo added, “We’re trying to build a culture of soil health across the state. It’s time to not only rethink soil health, but to integrate this into the bigger picture of climate resilience for New York State.”

Much of the scientific basis for the new soil health law comes from Cornell research. The university is also a key partner statewide in meeting the goals of the new law, which calls for the development of voluntary soil health standards that can help farmers test their soil and implement management practices that can increase yields and profitability while protecting soil and water quality, sequestering carbon and reducing fertilizer inputs.

Cornell maintains a 15-year database of soil health indicators, such as protein, activated carbon, hardness, and total organic matter, and uses this information to understand how to most effectively and economically improve the health and productivity of various soil types in within strategies such as cover crops, reduced tillage and biochar application, said Harold van Ess, a professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who co-leads the plant health initiative soil in New York State with Matt Ryan, Associate Professor at SIPS..

“The Soil Health and Climate Resilience Act is a really important achievement,” van Ess said. “This was a truly grassroots effort, and it’s a very progressive, visionary and comprehensive piece of legislation that recognizes the importance of soil health and places it in the context of other environmental concerns, particularly climate change and water quality.”

A panel of farmers spoke at the meeting about their experiences in applying regenerative farming practices to improve soil health. Dale Stein, senior partner of Stein Farms, a family dairy in LeRoy, New York, shared the success he’s seen introducing cover crops over the past 20 years.

“We use more manure, we use less artificial fertilizers and we get higher yields, provided we have rain,” Stein said. “There are a lot more cover crops being grown in our area now than ever before. I hope our neighbors who are now planting cover crops will see the benefits we have.”

The meeting included input from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Cornell CALS and Cooperative Extension, and the USDA. Participating partner organizations include American Farmland Trust, Northeast Organic Farming Association, Scenic Hudson and New York Farm Bureau.

Chrissy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

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